Perfect Words

(alternately titled; “you can’t reach ’em all.”)

This morning, in my public speaking class, I gave my students the first two pages of Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening statement to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. This speech is one of my most favorite pieces of writing, and I wanted to find an opportunity to slip it into my students’ experiences in this class.

We had been talking about what makes for an effective introduction to a speech; how does a speaker simultaneously acknowledge his or her audience, grab the attention of that audience, and preview his or her speech without saying things like “today, I’m going to talk to you about…”? We threw some ideas onto the board under the headings of “the good,” “the bad,” and “the ugly,” and the student filled in the spaces with qualities they felt would fit those descriptions. The class determined that a strong story, a collection of compelling facts, or an interesting example might make for a good introduction, and I instantly thought of the Jackson speech. I hadn’t planned on using the speech today, so I ran downstairs during the break and printed off a copy from a computer in the adjuncts’ offices. God/dess, but I do love the internet!

I’d first come in contact with Justice Jackson’s Nuremberg statement after teaching a Holocaust unit to high school freshmen during my internship. My cooperating teacher and I were using TNT’s production of Nuremberg in the classroom, and I distinctly remember being blown away by Alec Baldwin, who played Jackson in the film, reading excerpts from the opening speech. The entire work is nearly 40 pages long – the filmmakers chose about three paragraphs for the actor to read – but even just those three, non-sequential paragraphs were exceedingly powerful. I remember going home that afternoon, finding the entire text of the speech online, and reading through it in one sitting. My opinion of Justice Jackson is that he was a singularly brilliant thinker, writer, and speaker, and I’ve never come across anything of his that has served to diminish that opinion in the least.

My students and I went through the first two paragraphs in class:

images.jpeg The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.

This Tribunal, while it is novel and experimental, is not the product of abstract speculations nor is it created to vindicate legalistic theories. This inquest represents the practical effort of four of the most mighty of nations, with the support of 17 more, to utilize international law to meet the greatest menace of our times-aggressive war. The common sense of mankind demands that law shall not stop with the punishment of petty crimes by little people. It must also reach men who possess themselves of great power and make deliberate and concerted use of it to set in motion evils which leave no home in the world untouched. It is a cause of that magnitude that the United Nations will lay before Your Honors.

What I find so profoundly interesting about the part of the lesson that involved this speech is that the students had such widely varying reactions to it. A couple of them were, as I was, completely and totally taken in; they were astounded by the eloquence and flow of the writing. One student said that every word was perfect; that the language was almost indescribable in how well it did what it did. The students who were in awe of Jackson’s words commented that he did, in those first two paragraphs, a lot of the things that good introductions were supposed to do; he introduced his topic (first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world), he addressed his audience (It is a cause of that magnitude that the United Nations will lay before Your Honors), he previewed material that he would cover later and in more depth in the body of his speech (wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish), and he did it all in a way that neither left the audience scratching their heads in confusion nor spoon-fed them as if they were incapable of comprehension.

Others in the class did feel as though they were scratching their heads, though. A few days ago, I wrote a piece about how much smarter (some) students are than than they give themselves credit for being. I had at least two students in this morning’s class who didn’t believe they were smart enough for this material.  They couldn’t grasp the language and couldn’t understand how the words fit together to express Jackson’s topic and purpose. They gave up after the first few sentences and essentially shut down for the rest of the lesson, and no amount of my assurance that they were, indeed, smart enough to appreciate this had any effect on them.

I understand that I can’t reach every student all the time. I understand that the students who felt lost in today’s class may well have taken something away today that they’ll find useful in the future; that not every lesson is immediately and obviously recognizable. I can’t help but feel a little twinge of disappointment, though, that I wasn’t able to adequately convey my deep and abiding respect and admiration for this piece to those students who didn’t see it, and that I wasn’t able to convince them that they were smart enough to engage in this incredible snapshot of history.

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8 Comments

Filed under admiration, concerns, General Griping, Learning, Teaching

8 responses to “Perfect Words

  1. wordlily

    It _is_ sad, that these students didn’t feel they could grasp this work. It didn’t strike me as using BIG words; rather, it used normal words in a tremendous fashion.

  2. I hate to ask this, but are you sure your students knew the historical context of the Nuremberg Trials?

    I’m teaching the various story elements to my classes and with my eighth graders I’m using excerpts of The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig, an autobiography of a young girl sent to a concentration camp in Poland during World War II. I had to make sure that mu students knew what was going on in Poland in 1941. Otherwise, some of the things I was asking would be very difficult to answer. It’s shocking how little many don’t know of history.

    And some students, no matter what, will not make the connections. Moments of glimmer, but that is all. It’s conditioning. It’s a shame. But focus on the successes, the connections you made with this one lesson. Next lesson you may reach the others.

  3. For what it is worth, I was an outstanding student in high school and college, but often I could not grasp written and verbal works. I do not know if it is a right brain / left brain issue (I am an Engineer). However, I am happy to announce that one day in my adulthood, it clicked (probably thanks to outstanding English teachers!), and now I can analyze, understand and greatly appreciate works like the one to which you refer.

    So, if a student hasn’t thanked you today, on behalf of Coach Avalon who pushed and pushed me because he new it was in there somewhere, thanks a million.

  4. BoDog, don’t ever “hate to ask” me anything. The biggest reason I have this blog is so that I can share in the experiences of others, and your asking me something like that doesn’t offend me at all because, someday, you may ask me something that I didn’t consider, and that will make me a better teacher.

    I DID give them some historical context before I handed the piece out. I’m not sure that it was sufficent, though, because I found myself hooked on and, as a result, emphasiazing the idea that the trial at Nuremberg was the first of its kind. Nothing like this had ever been done before because nothing like what the Nazis had done had ever been done before. The Nuremberg officials were blazing a trail and going it more than a little blindly. It is for that very reason, though, that Jackson’s incredible poise and eloquence stands out so brilliantly.

    I also made a big deal about the fact that we didn’t even have a WORD for what happened to all those victims; how could we possible deal rationally with something that was so utterly IRrational and horrifying? One of my big ideas – in pretty much every class that I teach – is that language has power; that the whole “sticks and stones” thing is so much bullshit; that we go to therapy so we can name our problems, so that we can exert some control over them in the naming. There was no word for what happened in Europe in the 30s and 40s. No one had thought to coin the word “genocide” because, up to that point, no one had conisdered the possibility that we may have need of such a word (I didn’t even GO to the genocide of the native American population – even though that’s where that word should have found its creation).

    I’m pretty sure that there was some value in the lesson to everyone in the class, even those who didn’t think they were smart enough to “get it.” If nothing more, they know a little about the Nuremberg trials, and they will have a little glimmer of memory of Mrs. Chili saying something about it if, sometime in their future, the topic comes up again. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself to get through…

  5. Saintseester, thanks. If I can be THAT teacher to just a few of the students who roll through my classrooms, I will consider my job well done. Teaching really IS touching the future, and I’m not yet beaten down by the system and its idocy to stop believing that.

  6. WL

    “Nothing like this had ever been done before because nothing like what the Nazis had done had ever been done before. … No one had thought to coin the word ‘genocide’ because, up to that point, no one had conisdered the possibility that we may have need of such a word.”

    Mrs. Chili, with all due respect, do you seriously believe that no genocide ever occurred before the Third Reich existed? I find that frankly shocking. Let’s not even go back to ancient history, when genocide went by the term “barbarism.” Let’s just stick to the 20th century.

    What about the Armenian genocide of 1915-17? What about the forced famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33? Oh, but there was no United Nations then and we weren’t at war with the Turks or the Soviets, so we had no mechanism by which to bring them to justice (assuming we cared at the time, which is doubtful). After 1945, the US and its allies had absolute power over the defeated Germans. That’s what was new: the power to hold tribunals. The slaughter and enslavement of ethnic, religious, and tribal peoples has been occurring since the beginning of recorded human history.

    “(I didn’t even GO to the genocide of the native American population – even though that’s where that word should have found its creation).”

    (So you do think it existed before WWII?) Before you tell your students that what was done to the indigenous population here was “genocide,” please do some research on the subject so that you can at least let them know that the application of that word is a matter of dispute among historians and political scientists (e.g., http://hnn.us/articles/7302.html).

  7. Oh, I absolutely believe that genocide – ethinc cleansing, mass murder, barbarism, crusades, whatever you want to call it – existed before the Nazi atrocities. I stand by the point that I made above, however; that we needed a new word to name a new evil. While there were atrocities before the Nazis, no one had made such efficient, sanctioned, organized or mechanized work of it. Technology made much of the work of the Nazis possible – up to and including the horrifyingly efficient disposal of millions of human beings. Even Albert Speer noted, in his closing statement to the Nuremberg panel, that:

    Earlier dictators, during their work of leadership, needed highly qualified assistants, even at the lowest level; men who could think and act independently. The totalitarian system in the period of modern technical development can dispense with them; the means of communication alone make it possible to mechanize the lower leadership. As a result of this there arises the new type of the uncritical recipient of orders.

    We had only reached the beginning of the development. The nightmare of many a man that one day nations could be dominated by technical means was all but realized in Hitler’s totalitarian system.

    Today the danger of being terrorized by technocracy threatens every country in the world. In modern dictatorship this appears to me inevitable. Therefore, the more technical the world becomes, the more necessary is the promotion of individual freedom and the individual’s awareness of himself as a counterbalance.

    What I told my class, though, wasn’t that, before 1944, this had never happened before (though it hadn’t, really, in the way that the Nazis perfected it), but that there was no codified word to define such acts. This is true and I said it with confidence.

    The term was coined in 1944 by a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin. He working as an analyst for the US War Department, researching Nazi atrocities, when he wrote in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe:

    “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development(emphasis is mine), is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)…. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group” (80).

    I am very well aware that there is a great deal of argument over the use of the word, and that those arguments are mostly for political reasons. People in power stop short of using the word to describe things to which it clearly applies because use of the word brings with it certain political and moral responsibilites that those people in power may not be willing to undertake. I do keep up with such things – I am associated with several groups who study and teach issues surrounding the Holocaust and genocide and human rights, and I read and I talk and I think. I very much appreciate your comments, WL, but I feel that your seeming indignation with me is ill-placed.

  8. sphyrnatude

    A bit off topic, but the hirrible fact is that many students just don’t know history. While I was teaching at University (OK, it was a graduate level neurobiology class), I mentioned the fall of Saigon for some reason. A number of my students couldn’t make the connection (I can’t remember what it was), but a bit of discussion revealed that they thought “Saigon” was the name of the helicopter being pushed off the back of the Destroyer (or whatever warship it was) in the famous “fall of Saigon” picture.
    Needless to say, that days lecture on cellular physiology of touch receptors was cancelled for an in depth discussion of Viet Nam…..

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